Is family support essential to getting into selective universities?

Getting into university is competitive and most students aiming to do so have considerable support from their family.

It’s reasonable to assume that the more selective, prestigious and competitive the university is, the more family help is required. There is the financial contribution: a private school education can boost your chances, and extra tuition can boost your grades. Your parents may even move or get a second home to be in the right school catchment area. But there is also the emotional and aspirational support: to do your homework, to excel in exams and to survive the stress of the selection process. Recent research has shown that the family acts as the guardian of students’ aspirations and carries them through when times are tough.

After a student gets accepted to a university, the support inevitably must continue. Students at many universities, especially the more selective ones, are advised not to work part-time in parallel to their studies. Parental top-ups allow students to concentrate on the demands of their academic course without needing to think about everyday practicalities or worry about where to live during the vacation periods.

But what if that parental support isn’t there?

Supporting every student

Now imagine a young person living in a difficult family situation with an offer from one of the two institutions that comprise the portmanteau Oxbridge. The student is working hard to get the required grades but their family relationship breaks down during the run-up to the exams, and suddenly finding somewhere to live and money to survive becomes priority number one. Their A level results inevitably suffer, and what was predicted to be an A* may turn into an A or B on results day.

What happens next? Do their dreams of going to Oxbridge get thwarted?

Stand Alone’s research has shown that for nearly three-quarters of estranged students in HE, family breakdown and estrangement occurred during secondary education, in the sixth form or in college. Unfortunately (and heartbreakingly), we have come across young people in exactly this situation.

These are students who are clearly bright enough to get an offer from Oxbridge, but whose life changed irrevocably when the family infrastructure collapsed around them. There is no one reason: it could be rejection by a new step-parent, coming out as LGBT+, or being disowned for disclosing childhood abuse. Importantly, few of these young people will be picked up by the care system, either because of their age or lack of remit from local authorities.

Promises

This week, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have recognised the disadvantages created by a lack of family support, and have publicly pledged to our charity that they will do more. Their contextual admissions policies already include those from a care background, and at Cambridge it also addresses those “living independently of family (estranged students) and any kind of serious disruption due to family circumstances”.

The University of Oxford has committed to providing estranged young people with specific non-repayable bursary provision, up to £7,200 per academic year for those who are classified as independent and estranged from their family by the Student Loans Company (SLC) or the Student Awards Agency For Scotland (SAAS). They have created a smaller £3,000 for students who fall outside SLC’s sometimes overly-tight definition of an estranged family relationship (see my colleague Becca Bland’s articles for Wonkhe on this). The University of Cambridge offers an enhanced bursary up to £5,600 for students classified as independent by SLC.

For students who are struggling with emotive family issues pre-entry, or who are struggling to survive without working to supplement their loan, this is a meaningful step in the right direction. A recent article in The Oxford Student shows the considerable pressure and isolation that one estranged student felt in that institutional community.

The Stand Alone Pledge is the beginning of a journey for any higher education institution to overcome the disadvantages facing those without family support. The focus of this work cannot address the narrow geographical and socioeconomic distribution of admissions to more selective institutions, including Oxbridge, which are highlighted regularly in the press.

But it does have in its sight a future where those with the potential and the aspiration to study at university – including more selective institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge – have the chance to succeed despite adverse family circumstances. Furthermore, current data shows the intersectional nature of estranged students, and that there is an overrepresentation of BAME students in this category. It’ll be interesting to see if the Office for Students’ forthcoming access and participation dataset will cover estranged students.

But, the recognition of estranged young people is also important. Having these two famous universities showing an understanding that not all of their undergraduates will have either the perfect familial infrastructure, or a smooth runway into HE, is an important step in levelling the playing field in relation to a different, but equally important, measure of disadvantage.

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